It’s all about that cold open. The camera drifts down through darkness, as Mark Snow’s feverish score plays in the background. Then thunder cracks and lightning illuminates a house in the distance through the rain. An axe or scythe is perched on a barrel in the foreground. The next cut takes us inside the house to a close up of a screaming woman. In the lowest of low-key lighting, male figures tend to the woman, grabbing an object (a knife or scalpel?) from a bowl. Lightning flashes, and then there’s a squeal. We see the men cut an umbilical chord, and we hear a baby gasp, struggling to breathe. The camera cuts outside, near the floor of the porch, and three pairs of feet walk past. The men walk to a field and dig a hole in the ground, as one of the three cries in the background. They place the baby in the hole and begin to fill it. Then we get a point-of-view shot from the baby’s perspective as the mud is shoveled on top of it. The two men console the third. Cut to credits.
I first saw that cold open to the X-Files episode “Home” when it aired in 1996, and at the time, it was probably the most disturbing thing I’d ever seen on broadcast television. And then it got worse. After the commercial break, the episode, written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Kim Manors—a crackerjack team by X-Files standards—returns to Home, Pennsylvania, as a group of boys start a baseball game in the field next to the same house we saw before. After a ball flies over the fence, to the yard in front of the house, the right fielder who refuses to retrieve the ball identifies the lot as “the Peacock’s property.” So the kids find a new ball. The batter rubs his hands in the dirt, taps home plate, and begins to dig his feet into the ground. Suddenly, his foot kicks up a pool of blood, and the baby’s hand becomes visible.
Perhaps this imagery is no more grotesque than what audiences might now see on a typical episode of CSI, but it caused quite a stir back in 1996. After its first broadcast, the Fox network refused to rerun “Home” because of its incendiary content. The episode’s incestuous mutants may have been the cause of the ban, but my money’s on the dead baby blood. As revolting as those opening images are, though, for the most part, the plot of “Home” just recycles some familiar generic tropes—a family of inbred, deformed Southerners (when it comes to horror, is there any other kind?) kill their deformed infant, then a few people who try to meddle in their business—and the body count is fairly low. What makes “Home” so effective and affecting isn’t so much its audacity as it is the elegance of its construction.
Like the best monster-of-the-week X-Files episodes (and this is certainly among them), “Home” terrifies because its writers and director demonstrate a perfect command of the mechanics of genre. Morgan and Wong’s script delivers an immediate shock and builds to its climax through a perfectly paced 44 minutes, while Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) piece together the wretchedness of the Peacocks’ condition one scene at a time, bringing a welcome levity to diffuse the overwrought proceedings. Manors, meanwhile, deftly deploys long shots, close ups, obscure angles, and low-key lighting to convey the threat the Peacocks pose while delaying the reveal of their monstrous appearance.
The episode culminates with the grand entrance of Mrs. Peacock, a multiple amputee who rolls across the floor and under the furniture on a low, four-wheel dolly. She is a pitiable and hideous creature, a monster just recognizably human enough to be truly terrifying. Forget the sewer fluke or the tumor eater; Mrs. Peacock may be The X-Files‘ single most memorable one-off creation. After meeting her once, who needed a rerun?